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Welcome to the Choose Your Own Adventure that is finance certifications. Whether you want to niche down into state-level governmental accounting or transition into the C-Suite of a tech company, there’s a path for you.

These options are all great things to have attached to your name, but the specific value of each is going to depend largely on the career path that you’re looking to pursue. The following certifications are much more than just show; they communicate expertise in specific subject matter and allow you to specialize in what you’re best at. 

The only issue is… there are a lot of them, and not all certifications are going to be relevant for you. If you’re interested in working with individuals, you won’t be aiming to become a Financial Risk Manager (FRM), whereas if you want to go the corporate route, getting your Financial Planning certification (CFP) would be irrelevant for you.

Here are details on the most useful finance designations in the U.S. in 2023, including who they’re most relevant for.

PS: if FP&A is your jam, I've put together another certification round-up specifically for you.

1. Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) 

Focus: Securities and financial investments.
Cost: $3,050 - $3,950
Education Prerequisite: Bachelor’s Degree
Work Experience Prerequisite: At least 4,000 hours in a position directly related to the investment decision-making process.

I’d be truly shocked if you hadn’t heard of this one. 

A CFA certification is one of the most popular and widely recognized designations in financial services throughout the U.S. and, debatably, the world. Issued by the highly respected CFA Institute, there are over 190,000 charterholders in the world, which is quite a feat when you consider how low the pass rate is for each of the 3 levels of the CFA.

This certification denotes that you have expertise in securities and financial investments and you’d expect to find it when dealing with any finance professional in portfolio management, capital market research and analysis, and investing in general.

If you’re here because you want to know the fast track to become a CFO, this designation could help, but isn’t explicitly necessary unless you’re looking at investment banking or public equity.

2. Financial Modeling & Valuation Analyst (FVMA) 

Focus: Practical financial analysis.
Cost: $497 - $847
Education Prerequisite: Undergraduate Degree
Work Experience Prerequisite: Not required

While certainly not as robust or recognizable as a CFA, the FVMA course can help learn the fundamentals of creating financial models and applying theoretical knowledge in a practical way.

If you’re just starting out in the world of finance and looking for structured education to help you gain practical skills, the FVMA is a great choice. This designation is particularly useful for individuals interested in Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A), Equity Research, and similar corporate finance functions.

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3. Certified Public Accountant (CPA) 

Focus: Public accounting.
Cost: Approximately $12,500 - $14,000
Education Prerequisite: Undergraduate Degree
Work Experience Prerequisite: At least 30 months as a professional accountant.

While not technically a certification, the CPA is still one of the “greats” on this list. The CPA designation is widely recognized across the U.S.; you’ll see many CFOs and other top executives in public companies with this designation.

This certification holds accountants to a specific code of ethics and keeps both the personal and corporate finance routes open. Both fields have a need for certified accountants, whether that be for preparing compliant financial statements or helping an individual properly file their tax returns.

If you want to get into the world of public company accounting (and financial accounting in general), this license needs to be on your roadmap.

4. Certified Management Accountant (CMA) 

Focus: Internal financial strategy.
Cost: $1,500 - $1,700
Education Prerequisite: Undergraduate Degree
Work Experience Prerequisite: At least 2 years of full-time work in either financial management or management accounting.

As opposed to a CPA, which is a more general designation and requirement for public company accounting, a CMA is for those who know they want to work in corporate finance and be more involved in strategic decision-making for a company.

A Certified Management Accountant identifies business growth strategies based on comprehensive financial analyses and informs the strategic vision through the numbers. As we see the rise of the Strategic CFO, we also see the rise in CMA popularity.

As an example, a CMA might audit the internal business processes in their organization in order to identify cost reduction and revenue maximization opportunities, whereas a CPA is more likely to audit the financial statements of an organization and ensure compliance with regulatory bodies. 

The CMA designation is a great path for those with their sights set on a Director of Finance or CFO role in the future.

5. Certified Financial Planner (CFP) 

Focus: Financial planning for individuals.
Cost: Anywhere from $595 (just the course) to $6,000+ (for various programs and resources)
Education Prerequisite: Undergraduate Degree
Work Experience Prerequisite: At least 4,000 hours of apprenticeship experience that meets specific requirements, or 6,000 hours of professional experience related to the financial planning process. Work and education prerequisites can be met within 10 years before or 5 years after taking the exam.

If dealing with businesses isn’t really your speed and you prefer to work on an individual basis instead, the CFP may be the designation for you. Administered by the CFP Board, Certified Financial Planners are personal financial advisors that assist individuals with wealth management, covering areas such as personal investments, retirement planning, estate planning, and tax law.

Some CFPs do end up doing a bit of corporate finance work, advising small business owners as well, but this is certainly not the standard.

If you want to help individuals with their financial planning (and get paid for it), a CFP is the way to go.

6. Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC) 

Focus: Financial planning.
Cost: $5,895
Education Prerequisite: None (but it is highly recommended to have an Undergraduate Degree in business or finance, and these count as 1 year toward your work experience)
Work Experience Prerequisite: At least 3 years working full-time in the financial industry.

Introduced in 1982 as an alternative to the CFP, the ChFC designation is also for professionals that want to offer professional financial planning advice; however, Chartered Financial Consultants give advice to individuals and businesses alike, though they are much more likely to work with individuals. 

Compared to the CFP, the ChFC is:

  • Less widely known
  • Lengthier education portion, with 9 college-level modules included
  • No comprehensive final exam; rather, exams are contained within the coursework

Otherwise, there’s a massive overlap between the CFP and ChFC, and some personal financial advisors may hold both accreditations. In fact, some professionals take ChFC courses to prepare for their CFP exam.

7. Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA) 

Focus: Investment management across a broad array of asset classes.
Cost: $2,790 - $3,590
Prerequisites: Undergraduate Degree and at least 1 year of work experience in the financial industry OR at least 4 years of work experience in the financial industry.

Whereas a CFA focuses primarily on standard investment vehicles (ie stocks, bonds, and other public equity vehicles), the CAIA course teaches students how to analyze alternative investment classes such as private equity assets, hedge funds, distressed debt, and more.

With the rise in popularity of venture capital and derivative investing, this certification is seeing more attention in recent years; going beyond the “classic” investing vehicles, the CAIA was born to teach professionals about a wider range of asset classes.

If you’re interested in the world of asset management and investing, gaining this charter will help you broaden your practical and theoretical investment horizons to build a more comprehensive portfolio.

8. Certified Fund Specialist (CFS) 

Focus: Investment funds.
Cost: $999 - $1,395
Prerequisites: Undergraduate Degree OR at least 1 year of financial services work experience.

Created in 1988 to “fill a serious gap in the professional practice of certified financial planners”, this certification focuses on mutual funds, ETFs, REITs, and advanced investment analysis and allocation techniques.

With a claim from the Institute of Business and Finance that “one-third of all Americans own shares of a mutual fund”, this certification will help professionals that want to round out their investment management toolkit. Side note: are financial planners actually recommending mutual funds above ETFs in 2023? Let me know in the comment section at the bottom of this article, because I think that’s crazy.

Anyway, this designation is for the professional that wants to service individuals, this designation is useful for those aiming to become bankers, brokers, money managers, and the like.

9. Financial Risk Manager (FRM) 

Focus: You guessed it, risk management.
Cost: $600 - $1,200
Education Prerequisite: Not required
Work Experience Prerequisite: At least 2 years working full-time in risk management, though work experience may be gained (within 5 years) after completing of the exams.

Created by the Global Association of Risk Professionals (GARP - not to be confused with the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, GAAP), this certification gained a lot of attention following the 2008 Financial Crisis. As risk management gained steam as its own bonafide profession, this certification expanded in popularity to denote those with a specialization in the area.

Highly useful and recognized by global organizations that manage risk extremely closely (such as banks and investment firms), this certification can help you get your foot either in the door or on the next rung of the ladder at large global banks.

10. Chartered Government Finance Manager (CGFM) 

Focus: Governmental accounting and related functions.
Cost: $36 - 109
Education Prerequisite: Undergraduate Degree
Work Experience Prerequisite: At least 2 years experience in governmental financial management.

The CGFM certification focuses on governmental accounting, auditing, financial reporting, internal controls, and budgeting at the federal, state, and local levels.

In case you hadn’t guessed by now, this designation is specifically designed for those that want to fill finance functions within the public sector, teaching the nuances of accounting and finance in that world.

What’s Harder: The CFA or CPA?

If we’re going off of the pass rate alone, the CFA is definitely the harder of the two. With a cumulative pass rate of 7-8% in the U.S., the CFA poses one of the largest educational challenges for financial professionals. The CPA charter success rate is much higher, coming in around 50% for first-time test-takers.

With that said, focusing on what you’re interested in should be the real barometer for which designation to pursue. Even if you manage to pass one of them, you’ll end up coming back for the other if you prefer that function of finance!

Class Dismissed

That concludes the top 10 financial certifications in the U.S. in 2023; however, I’d love to know what other certifications you think are growing in importance or value within the world of finance.

I’d also love anyone familiar with FP&A to comment below and let me know which courses or designations they think are the most important in that function.

Keep it in the black (and be sure to come back),


By Simon Litt

Simon Litt is the Editor of The CFO Club, where he shares his passion for all things money-related. Performing research, talking to experts, and calling on his own professional background, he'll be working hard to ensure that The CFO Club is an indispensable resource for anyone seeking to stay informed on the latest financial trends and topics in the world of tech.

Prior to editing this publication, Simon spent years working in, and running his own, investor relations agency, servicing public companies that wanted to reach and connect deeper with their shareholder base. Simon's experience includes constructing comprehensive budgets for IR activities, consulting CEOs & executive teams on best practices for the public markets, and facilitating compliant communications training.